TERRE HAUTE —
I’m no coffee connoisseur. If it’s hot and black and in a Styrofoam cup, I’ll drink it.
Knowing I consume a good bit of brew every day, my family helps fuel the addiction by buying Christmas gift cards for me at a local coffee shop, but, since I make it into town only occasionally, the cards stay stashed in my wallet until the Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic rolls around.
Each morning of each year, before the first game of each day tips off at the Classic, I stop to grab my coffee. I’d get it in a 55-gallon drum if it were offered, but, needless to say, I order the “extra-grande.” I’ll take the flavor of the day—Ethiopian, Arabic, Turkish—and I really don’t care how it’s ground, roasted, or brewed. No sugar or cream for me; I just want to grab it and get to the games.
The Classic is just like that morning joe for me: it’s big and bold and energized, and it comes in different sizes and flavors. It’s basketball on caffeine. From 10 in the morning until nearly 10 at night, the lights are burning, the fans are cheering, and the shoes are squeaking at the Classic.
I’m happy to say that I took in 24 of the 28 games at Terre Haute South this year, and as usual, I didn’t have to worry about covering the contests or keeping stats or worrying about deadlines—the rest of the Tribune-Star Sports staff did that. I talked to people, watched the crowd, kept my ear to the ground, and enjoyed the pizza. It was a great tournament again this year, and I congratulate all of those who took part in it, particularly North’s championship-winning Patriots. Here’s a little of what I took in, along with that coffee…
• Regis and Kelly and Earl — I’ve gotten to know Darrell and Earl Roundtree over the years at the Classic. Year after year, I can walk into either North or South’s gym and find them in their usual seats with their usual determination to watch every single game, even though they have to miss the occasional Indiana State game to do it.
This year was a first for Earl, who played with Darrell, and one or two other Roundtree boys, for the State High Sycamores in the 50s. A local television crew caught Earl between games and asked him on camera about his impressions of the tournament.
Earl had never been interviewed on television before, but he handled it like a pro. He said that the Classic helps bring back memories of the old Valley tournament for him, that he enjoys the crowds and the noise and excitement of the Classic.
I think a yearly Pizza Hut Classic interview with Earl would be a great idea, but the station might want to get it in writing soon; that tape might just end up in some network executive’s hands.
• Time to Make the Donuts – I know that Riverton Parke isn’t so far up US 41 that it should be tough to get to Terre Haute for their Classic games, but the Panthers sure had to make that trip early in the morning often enough this year. The Panthers went 1-2 in 2010, but did so by playing three straight 10 am games. RP also played the final 10 o’clock game in last year’s tourney, so that’s four consecutive early trips to town.
By the way, I asked Gary Fears, the PHWVC guru, to help me figure who had the highest percentage of 10 o’clock games—including the times they’ve drawn the first game—in the tournament’s 11 years, and we determined that it was Riverton Parke and Turkey Run.
Wouldn’t you just know it? The Panthers and the Warriors had to face each other on Day 3 again this year. Do I really even have to tell you that it was at 10 o’clock?
• Get to the Games Early—If there’s one bit of advice that I can give to the fan who is about to experience his or her first Classic, it would be to get to the gymnasium early. Forget the seat cushion, don’t worry about hearing aid batteries, don’t sweat leaving your coat in the car, but get to the game—particularly the evening contests—you want to see an hour or two ahead of time.
Although this year’s tourney wasn’t as jam-packed as the last two, it did have moments when fans had to be held in the lobby until seats opened up. There’s no doubt that some folks who came to see a brother or son or grandson play didn’t get squeezed through the doors in time.
• Travels With Charlie — Not only was I privileged to have a great seat for the Rockville-South match-up, one of the great games of this year’s tournament—perhaps one of the best ever—I happened to sit next to Charlie Fouty, who was just as entertaining.
Just in case you don’t know him, Charlie was an Indiana All-Star in 1946 out of State High, became one of the best basketball officials the state has ever produced, and was elected to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame 30 years ago. He’s also a terrific storyteller. Charlie told me that the first time he ever watched a game in the old Valley tournament was in 1939 when the Oblong Pirates won the championship. In some way or another, as a fan, a player, or as an official, Charlie has been involved in Wabash Valley basketball ever since.
We spoke about everything and anything hoops; about Notre Dame and Austin Carr, about Artis Gilmore and Bob Knight and John Wooden. He told me a story about Irish coach Johnny Dee, who drop-kicked a basketball bearing Kentucky Wildcats’ Adolf Rupp’s signature into the stands at Freedom Hall after protesting that his team wouldn’t play with it.
Charlie believes Butler’s Tony Hinkle was one of the ten greatest basketball coaches ever, and that Rick Mount would have redefined scoring had he played with a 3-point line. He said that he saw many very, very good teams, but, as he put it, “There is a big difference between being good and being great.” The two greatest teams he said he saw were the 1968-1969 UCLA Bruins and the 1974-75-76 Indiana Hoosiers.
By the way, my time with Charlie Fouty, in a packed house, with a great game, wasn’t just good; it was great.
n We Interrupt This Broadcast — I tried to make Jason Pensky understand that I have a face better suited for radio, but the local sportscaster asked me to join him on television to talk about the Classic during halftime of the Casey-Sullivan contest on championship night. I don’t believe ESPN will be calling me anytime soon, but I appreciated Jason’s kind words after we were done. I had done a little color commentary for local radio in years past, but television was a whole new experience for me. I can deal with the fact that television may add 10-15 pounds to a person, but what I needed most for the interview were 10-15 more IQ points…
• The Smallest Cheer — I have been an unabashed admirer of Marshall High School basketball for quite some time and that certainly was supported as I watched the Lions knock off Linton in the 5th place game Thursday. Win or lose, it seems as though Marshall fans support their teams as a community, something that was reinforced by seeing 4-year-old Ava Fleener in her Marshall cheerleading uniform.
Ava was more than a cute addition to the Lions’ cheer squad; she actually knows the words to the cheers, stomps her tiny feet in unison with her older counterparts, and manages to keep from being trampled by the Marshall mascot, who just might have a problem seeing the yard-stick-sized Ava. By halftime, I did notice that Ava needed a popcorn break, and by the end of the third quarter, she was tuckered out and needed some rest.
They start loving basketball at a pretty young age in Marshall; Ava proves that.
• Role-Playing at the Classic — Hunter Robertson and Bryant Pestoff are not the stars of the Northview Knights team that challenged North in the championship game Thursday. They are, however, two reasons why I have come to love this tournament, two reasons why I think basketball is such a great sport.
At 5-foot-11, Robertson, a senior, isn’t going to dominate anybody’s frontline, but that’s exactly where Coach Ernie Maesch expects him to play. I’m not suggesting that anyone is going to be kicking sand in his face at the beach anytime soon, but Robertson spent most of his evenings slugging it out against the likes of North’s Matt O’Leary (6-7), Jake Newton (6-4), and Calvin Blank (6-5). Robertson scored nine points in four Classic games this year, but he worked as hard as anybody. Pestoff, a 6’4” junior was lucky enough to draw the Patriots’ Justin Gant as his defensive assignment for most of that championship game, and he did a great job on him too.
Ten players make the Pizza Hut Classic’s all-tournament team, and I congratulate them. I just wanted each team’s yeoman, the Robertsons and Pestoffs, to know that their efforts are appreciated too.
• What a Difference a Day Makes — Most fans knew when they watched Casey-Westfield outlast Linton 91-87 on the Classic’s second day that they were seeing something special. Both teams are young and revving their engines for the 2011 tourney, but their match-up was only the third double-overtime game in the Classic’s history; their 178 points also set a PHC record for the highest-scoring game.
But 24 hours later, Shakamak defeated Bloomfield 27-26, and that game set a record too; it was the lowest scoring game in the history of the Classic. Bloomfield was involved in the previous record-setter, as well, a 33-21 loss to Owen Valley in 2005.
• Missing Murray and Dean — I saw a lot of friends at the Classic again this year, but I sure did miss seeing Murray Melton and Dean Kendall.
Murray, one of the most faithful of the Marshall Lions’ fans, passed away this summer. Dean, who wrote the definitive book on the Valley Tourney and could always be found at one end of the gym telling bad jokes and making new friends, missed his first Classic because he’s under doctor’s care in Indianapolis.
The Pizza Hut Classic is about more than basketball, about more than wins and losses. Not seeing Murray along the top row of the gym in his red Marshall Lions ball cap and Dean at his table laughing and talking about his days in Pimento reminded me of that.
You can contact Mike Lunsford by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at www.tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his third book.